Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine: B+

Toro Y Moi’s debut album, Causers of This, came out on the tide of haze that was late-2009 chillwave, and made no bones about what sound it was going for. It was dance-obsessed, sample heavy, and, all in all, above average. What turned Causers of This into an album worth listening to, though, were main man Chaz Bundick’s production skills. His technique of phasing out the music on each downbeat of a song is exhilarating to me, now, as it was when I reviewed the album, last year. It was also excellent foresight on Bundick’s part for where electronic music was going in the ensuing year, as albums like Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma and Baths’s Cerulean would utilize the technique to similarly great effect.

Cut to a year later, and Bundick has released his second album under the Toro Y Moi moniker. Whatever you may think of Underneath the Pine, it’s tough to deny that Bundick’s songwriting has matured significantly in the scant year he’s had to make new music. Where Causers of This had a more homogenous, just-for-kicks attitude towards its fluid interchange of electronics and live instruments, Underneath the Pine seems to be more comfortable in its own skin, relying much less on samples and more on Bundick’s voice. Bundick appears to have a better footing on what the Toro Y Moi sound is extricated from the chillwave movement that has long since passed. With Underneath the Pine, Toro Y Moi appears to be pressing all the right buttons in transitioning from a precocious beat-slider to an indie rock mellow machine.

That being said, Underneath the Pine, from a quality point of view, is not very different from Causers of This. In fact, despite a clearer focus in performance, I favor Causers of This slightly more. This is due to a few things, but what is most notable is that Underneath the Pine lacks that “pull the rug out from under you” style of production that, as I said before, improved Causers of This from decent to above average. The production of Underneath the Pine is straightforward, creating a live feel that treats Bundick’s voice as a focal point rather than just another instrument. The only time this is not the case is in “Good Hold”, when the song’s melody is smooshed into one of the speakers. It’s a surprising moment, and, consistent to form, the song's the most thrilling track on Underneath the Pine. The rest of the album lacks such surprises, and is less interesting as a result.

Also, as I mentioned before, Underneath the Pine concentrates more on Bundick’s voice. Despite adorning it with many interweaving harmonies, the album does little to distract from the fact that Bundick’s vocal presence just isn’t very strong. As he did on Causers of This, Bundick sounds squeamish and noncommittal, fitting the music decently well, but giving each track a blasé quality that I’m sorry to inform is present to some extent on all of Underneath the Pine’s tracks. While nothing on the album is especially damning, with no strong vocal hooks for the listener to latch onto, much of Underneath the Pine cannot help but sink into anonymity.

That isn’t to say, though, that Underneath the Pine is an especially bad album. In a way, its songs are better than those of Causers of This, because the Toro Y Moi of that album relied on those aforementioned production flourishes to buoy songs that otherwise would have been boring. The chorus of voices on “How I Know” and “Elise” and the bassline to “Still Sound” are inventive and indicative of a heightening in songwriting prowess for Bundick. There’s more to be valued in individual songs on Underneath the Pine than for Causers of This, and Bundick’s improvement in that regard indicates creativity to spare for future releases. However, I don’t see Underneath the Pine turning more heads than Toro Y Moi’s debut, and, to be honest, Toro Y Moi’s debut didn’t turn many heads to begin with. Underneath the Pine may lean too heavily on mood instead of hooks, but its rewards far outnumber its flaws, so, at its very base, it’s consistent.


Bayside - Killing Time: B-

If I told you that Bayside were an emo-leaning pop punk band that’s been touring off the MTV2-watching, misplaced-angst crowd for about seven years now, you might think that a rating such as the one up there would be appropriate. The truth is, I reluctantly regard Killing Time as “meh,” because I actually love the genre of music that bands like Bayside play. There’s something about those compressed guitar chords and feminine singing that gets me more enjoyment than I should when I come across a band that can perform it without succumbing to the immaturity that is incumbent upon that genre of music. Songs like The Starting Line’s “Best of Me” and Paramore’s “Misery Business” can seem to some like empty calories, but they are some of my favorite songs of the past decade. On their fifth album, Bayside do not get close to achieving this feat. Despite having most of the musicianship and looks of an MTV Spring Break act that I could respect, their flaws are the very same ones that have befallen countless bands before them.

On Killing Time, Bayside sound like a harder edge Motion City Soundtrack in more ways than one. Both groups write music nowadays with production that shines them of imperfections like marble and Anthony Raneri has a very Justin Pierre-like boyish shrill. However, what puts Killing Time into more of the ballpark of Motion City Soundtrack’s unconscionable dud, My Dinosaur Life, rather than that same group’s saving grace, “Everything Is Alright,” is that Raneri cannot resist attempting to be lyrically clever, a decision that often bears the brunt of my criticism of Killing Time. Raneri sounds overbearing when he boasts about writing a song about apathy in “Sinking and Swimming in Long Island” and snidely (at least to him) chastising a former lover with the comment, “I gave you all / You gave me less” in “Sick Sick Sick.” In Killing Time, Raneri calls girls “cyanide perfume” and “the black ice on my way home” and makes a chorus out of the line “Mona Lisa you’ve really done something / Done a number on all of my organs.” While these phrases could be worse (after all, they could be Motion City Soundtrack lyrics), they’re still terribly awkward, and damnit if they don’t take me out of the album every time I try to give it a chance.

If Killing Time will serve any purpose for me in the future, it will be as background music for a time when I get sick of replaying my copy of Bleed American for my emo-punk fix. Guitarist Jack O’Shea should be proud of his work on the album, because his riffs and arrangements are catchy and original, even brandishing some serious soloing chops on songs like “Already Gone” and “The Wrong Way,” but Bayside, as a group, cannot seem to overcome the lyrical pettiness that inevitably makes them sound unprofessional, no matter how much they compress those guitars. If you don’t take much stake in lyrics, I would recommend Killing Time. However, I’m more content to continue to wait for another group that can write hooks like Bayside and still cover most of their bases at the same time.


The Dears - Degeneration Street: B+

Degeneration Street hits the mark for an above-average rock album so fucking well, there is barely a thing I could say about it that wouldn’t sound inane or contrived.

(Metaphor, adjective, metaphor, analogy, adjective)

The Dears sometimes sound like an Arcade Fire cover band fronted by Kele Okereke of Bloc Party.

(Influences romanticismofthepast influences romanticismofthepast influences)

It works quite well most of the time; “5 Chords” is the best track and its arrangements would not sound out of place on Neon Bible.

(Don’tmakeitseemlikeyou’verunoutofideas Don’tmakeitseemlikeyou’verunoutofideas)

But, sometimes, the emulations become too overt as Degeneration Street gets through its second half.

(CONVERSATIONAL. Do it then smile, do it then smile)

Geez, those lyrics are bleak, amirite?!

(HoW tHe FuCk Is AnYoNe SuPpOsEd To KnOw iF YoU LiKeD iT oR nOt If YoU dOn’T ExPlIcItElY sTaTe WhEtHeR yOu WoUlD rEcOmMeNd It?)

I recommend Degeneration Street, even if the fact that reviewing 35 albums in three weeks has stretched my writing ability disconsolately thin within an inch of its lifeEe!

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Bear with me, folks. They can’t all be winners.